Once more it’s hard to concentrate on music, poetry, art.

There isn’t going to be any new encounter with a set of words, nor any new musical combination with them today. I’ve mentioned during the last part of 2020 how this project that has brought me much joy and surprise has become more difficult for me. There are complicated reasons of little general interest that contribute to this, but this week there are again public events that have made it harder for me to concentrate on work.

Unless you are meditating in a cave somewhere, and only check in here as religious penance, you may easily guess what events this week have waylaid me. I feel compelled, for no logical reason, to bear witness to them, to watch them closely over the Internet at my shelter-in-place distance. Yesterday and certainly today that Internet will be filled with opinions. Well, that’s always so isn’t it — even if it may be to some degree even more so today. If you need opinions, you can drink of them until you are falling over swollen with them. I won’t fault you if you do, because I have read and will read some of them myself. I say this only to say that there’s no shortage of them, and so I will be brief and circumspect.

I declare this International Patchen

Painting by poet Kenneth Patchen who was also a pioneer in melding poetry and music, so don’t take this as some universal pronouncement. .

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I revere democracy. Not because I think it incapable of monstrous acts. All governments are so capable, and if they exist for more than a brief moment, history testifies that capability will be exercised. Not because I think that our particular U. S. government structure is divinely inspired. Not because I’m likely to agree with what the majority of fellow humans believe about a great many things. I revere democracy because its evils are our evils, its good is our good — and that good is redeemable to outweigh the bad in us.

Whether the actors I’m observing are dressed as a Senator or dressed in a jokey t-shirt and a red half-billed hat, the desire — no, the actions — so brazenly presented and recently taken in the cause of maintaining the rule of a man so roundly rejected by our voters are obviously counter to that reverence. The Capitol building, the august chambers, are just symbols. Since many of us are writers, we know symbols can have a heft even if imagined, but still the real thing being attacked should be certain: democracy.

That’s right:  the symbol has bricks and glass, the real thing is something we need to hold in our hearts and minds, another thing that’s a verb not a noun.

Instead of a new piece, here’s one I’ve presented before, by another Reverend of Democracy, Carl Sandburg. Don’t miss Sandburg’s subtlety here. He admits right off that we can be a mob. When he says “The Napoleons come from me and the Lincolns.” He doesn’t merely mean that the notables, the big figures of history arise from the crowd. Sandburg means to contrast Napoleon who quickly became a military dictator with a Lincoln. We can bring both forward.

Here’s a link to the text of Sandburg’s poem, and my performance of it is available in this highlighted hyperlink, or via a player gadget you may see below. I still hope to be back with new pieces soon.

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Election Day

I recall being on the shores of Lake Superior, North America’s great internal sea, on the morning of the last U. S. Presidential election, a day very early in the run of this Project. The lake and wind were calm, and I was out alone at dawn at a place where you could hear the water-lapped gravel stones at one part of the shore clinking against others.

I arose this morning at dawn in my diverse urban neighborhood and rode and old bicycle down to a low creek near the border of the city. That waterway is running low, exposing the ragged banks it used to wear. On the way back I picked up a take-out breakfast and rode past my voting place where I saw some of my fellow citizens entering and exiting to do what I had already done a few weeks ago.

I am ill at ease for my country, my family, and myself, something that accelerated throughout this year. I’ve read all the information, added to it all my speculations, but I have no source or way of knowing if that helps. It seems likely that my country’s fate will be decided in varied places across a continent, by a group of people I don’t know, by rank strangers like and unlike me.

We call that system democracy. Our republic filters and strains that democracy, weighs us unequally. There are days that call to mind diverted poet Winston Churchill’s famous line “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time….” and other days were my mind’s ear hears singing poet Leonard Cohen*  intoning that “Democracy is coming (slight, sly, pause…) to the U.S.A.

Our Books

Books and votes and viruses and a world that weighs them with a right thumb in your eye and a left thumb on the scales. And you? Close your fist to protest. Open your fist to read, to vote, to grasp each others hand.

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I know some come to this blog to find something other than politics and self-assertion, and others as a break or supplement to earnest efforts at those things. Readership and listening stats here have never been higher, even as many of you have no-doubt been as troubled as I have been this year, so I feel the call to leave you with something today. I have picked a text from a writer that I often turn to in troubles: Carl Sandburg. When I first presented this audio piece, I said that Sandburg had seen every evil and injustice I had seen, would not deny what he had seen, but still retained an embrace of humanity. So, I’ll give you a selection again from his “The People, the Mob”  for this election day. The player gadget should appear below.

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*That Cohen died on the eve of that last U. S. Presidential election still seems like an epitaphic metaphor.

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I Am the People, the Mob

Last week was a tough week to bear, from the guns of Louisville through Pittsburgh and the man with the bomb plan and his sheets of flag stamps. Evil should not surprise me, it should not baffle me—and yet it does baffle me. Should I also feel sad along with bafflement? A good question for lengthy political analysis, but that won’t change how I feel beholding this.

I’m not naïve. I’ve lived a long life, and I’ve met a fair cross-section of Americans in it. Ignorance, racism, clan and gender prejudice—humans are prone to this. If I had a great deal of experience outside of the U.S., I would expect to find these things elsewhere too. But now and here, we have a benighted charlatan—in over his head—who trashes around in these things, knowing in some simple, instinctual, skunk’s way that this cloud of stink will confuse us from considering him.

In a few days our imperfect democratic republic will have an election. I do not suppose to know what will happen. I’m a poet and musician, go elsewhere for predictions. Poetry and art allow us to see more vividly across our temporary borders of place and time, but that sort of perspective doesn’t necessarily make us better prognosticators. In poetry and music, like in history, everything is possible, and over the long time, a great deal of the possible will become.

So here I sat, in this mere and disturbing week, having trouble considering the attempted and achieved beauty of my arts—because, in this stink and sadness, what can be meaningfully beautiful?

Carl Sandburg wth guitar

Carl Sandburg essays a look that Leonard Cohen would cop to sometime later

As I did earlier this fall feeling like this, I turned again to reading Carl Sandburg for my soul’s sake, for the early 20th Century Sandburg had seen every evil I have seen, and yet retained an embrace of humanity. Often here I focus in on the neglected Modernist Sandburg, the forgotten Imagist Sandburg of short poems that sing our overlooked, ordinary, humanity. Sometimes I fear the more expansive, Whitmanesque voice that Sandburg also used has drowned out the individuality of his shorter, less shouty poems.

But I needed him to shout some of his heart into me this week, so here’s Sandburg’s “I Am the People, the Mob.”  The player is below to hear it.

America, A Prophecy

July 4th is celebrated in the U. S. as Independence Day, the day that our congress signed a declaration of independence from the British Empire. I know this project has an international audience. So, why celebrate a provincial event here?

Because the American Revolution was not simply a patriotic event. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that its initial battle was “the shot heard round the world.” What was so singular about it? It was not merely an anti-colonialist act—after all empires have had rebellious provinces forever, and empires always fall—but it was also an act that founded the modern democratic republic. Overthrowing a colonial government, as the American patriots did, is not in itself a remarkable event. I don’t mean to denigrate the sacrifices, the risks, they took. I don’t mean to overlook the evils inherent in armed struggle. I won’t today seek to re-litigate the proximate issues of the Revolutionary War, with its details of commercial interests (including, yes, commercial interests in human properties) and debate the best tactics for redress of grievances. No, those are all important, but they are not what makes the American Revolution worth our unique attention today.

signing the declaration

Silent thoughts in the room: What a fine statement of the Rights of Man we sign today! I hope they wrap this up before traffic on the turnpike gets crazy. None of my slaves have learned to read, right? Why am I the only one wearing a hat? I can’t get tickets to Hamilton? I am Hamilton!  All middle-age white guys, when does the prog-rock concert start?

 

Americans did not replace a king with a president for life. They didn’t exchange one dictator for another. They were not, in the end, interested in only replacing a bad man with what seemed to be a good man, and job-done. They instead instituted an imperfect, constantly challenged and constantly changing structure based on human rights and rule by reason and popular consent. The struggles, the risks of the Revolutionary generation were indeed great, but they pale in contrast to the struggles and risks born by the successor generations who sought to maintain and improve those structures. So, this is not a holiday honoring a person, a generation, or a concluding event, but instead, it is one marking a beginning.

Today’s piece was not written by an American, but by an Englishman who followed those revolutionary 18th Century events, but dealt with them on a spiritual plane: William Blake. The words come from his self-created 1793 book America, A Prophecy,  which he wrote, lettered, illustrated, and printed himself. It’s not an account of the actual battles, and its characters are largely his own imaginary beings, but he never lets his visionary eye fall away from what he sees as the core struggle in the events. It’s spiritual—not in sense of its fantastic stage—but in the sense of its divining the essence of the battle: human beings being held back from their potential and dignity by corrupt structures.

America_a_Prophecy_copy_a_plate_08

A plate from William Blake presenting part of today’s song

 

In our worldly plane, the men who signed that declaration were all men, all white men, mostly men of property, and yes, we should remember that some of those men of property’s properties were indeed other men, women, and children. Blake explicitly understood that. In his prophecy, the essence that they are declaring for, the angelic forces that cry for freedom and dignity are for all nations, for all genders. If the American structure had to struggle for generations to refuse slavery and give full citizenship to women, Blake says that, in essence, and in the philosophy of their republican structures and statements, they have already declared those evils as tyranny, even if they don’t perceive that yet.

It’s almost a reverse Faustian bargain, isn’t it? Instead of the devil tricking them to eternal slavery, freedom’s angels have them agreeing to dissolve their allegiance to a bad king—but the codicils they have signed declare for more than that! They’ve put their lives on the line to declare that humans have inalienable rights and that governments must work with the consent of the governed. How entirely can they understand what that entails? July 4th 1776 is a Thursday. Some are no doubt thinking of Friday; the men of foresight, to the possible course of the rest of the war; the wisest, perhaps, are thinking, of what, a generation ahead?

The sections I use from William Blake’s America, A Prophecy  are spoken by an angelic character he calls Orc, who personifies the overturning of the old tyrannies. With the limits of our short-piece format I’ve tried to give some flavor of what Blake understood was being overturned by the American Revolution. Musically, it’s a simple structure, though not the most common of chord progressions.  I tried to chant Blake’s words with as much passion as I could in this one-take performance by the LYL Band. If you are in the U. S., enjoy your cylindrical explosives and tubular sausages, but do not mix the two things up. Their shapes are similar, but keep your mind on their essences. The performance of an excerpt from William Blake’s America, A Prophecy  can be played with the gadget below.